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RANGELY I They wouldn’t do it again. But they were thankful to have experienced it once.
Spending $125 each is a hefty price to take a Sharpie to a chunk of asphalt. But this wasn’t just any piece of blacktop. This was the starting line of the Daytona International Speedway, home to the most prestigious race on the NASCAR circuit—the Daytona 500—and the genesis of a man’s dream.
Rangely resident Don Worrall and his nurse, Irene Kilbane, heard the call to sign the starting line from their handicap-accessible section overlooking the Speedway’s fourth turn. The day was cloudless, the anticipation palpable as racegoers milled around before the start of the Sprint Cup later that morning.
The friends looked at each other and smiled.
“We have to do it,” Kilbane said.
They paid the fee, Worrall maneuvering his power chair through the crowd and making his way down to the starting line. The marker cost extra. It didn’t matter.
“DON,” he wrote in bold capitals, then added “2016” below it.
Worrall had given up hope of attending the Daytona 500 several years ago, when an aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis had drained strength from his arms and legs as methodically as a child sucking milk through a straw.
A resident in Rangely District Hospital’s Long-Term Care Unit for the last 3 ½ years, Worrall had found a certain peace in his lot, from good neighbors to competent staff. Plus, he got to watch the NASCAR races every Sunday from the comfort of his room.
When Rangely District Hospital registered nurse-turned-friend Irene Kilbane learned of Worrall’s dream last fall, she refused the easy answer —that it couldn’t be done—and did it anyway. In a matter of days, approximately 50 supporters had raised $5,000 for the trip via a GoFundMe campaign, mail-in checks and drop-in donations. Across the hospital, staff, nurses, doctors and aides offered advice and helped with trip logistics.
After months of planning and waiting, it was finally time.
On Feb. 19, Worrall, Kilbane and Worrall’s cousin, Mitch Cochran, left for Daytona from Denver. Worrall’s brother, Mike, and sister-in-law, Leigh, picked up the new arrivals and took them for a traditional cruise down Daytona Beach, where the city’s heart for racing had begun.
For the next two days, the group watched Friday’s truck races and Saturday’s Xfinity Cup races from the shade of a friend’s 40-foot Winnebago parked near the Speedway’s second turn.
The thrill of watching the races simultaneously through a fence and on a flat-screen TV wouldn’t compare with what was to come.
Sunday Feb. 21 dawned sunny and clear. Once Worrall and Kilbane survived signing the starting line – the slanted speedway caused Worrall to slip precariously from his chair, leading Mike Worrall to joke that his brother had nearly become a speed bump at Daytona—the group gathered up on the stadium’s third tier. The track spread out gleaming and bright before them as cars lined up and drivers stretched, awaiting introductions.
“This was Mike’s third time in Daytona,” Worrall said. “I asked him, if you could pick out any seat in Daytona, where would it be? He said, ‘Right here.’ We had the best seats in the house.”
Like the race itself, everything preceding it felt full-throttle, from the opening prayer to the National Anthem to the five Blue Angels screaming overhead in formation before splitting off into oblivion. Drivers paired up into starting positions, then cruised the track once before the green flag launched a deafening volley of revved engines and wild cheering.
“With the sound of the cars and the people in the stands, you couldn’t hear anything,” Worrall said.
“It was electrifying,” Kilbane added.
In the first moments, 40 tightly packed cars floated past them in a matter of a second, a single organism of sound leaving the pungent scent of burnt rubber in its wake. As drivers jockeyed for position, paused for pit stops or crashed out, a kind of rhythm established itself.
For the next three-and-a-half hours, the group watched, mesmerized.
“When Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. got in the lead, the crowd went crazy,” Worrall said. “I knew the whole time I’ve been watching he’s the most popular driver on the track, but you never hear that on TV. We did at the track there. The whole crowd erupted.”
Crash outs by Earnhardt, Jr. and Danica Patrick, the two drivers Worrall and Kilbane were rooting for, respectively, left both drivers out of race contention although theirs were among relatively few incidents throughout the day.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin clinched his first Daytona victory, edging out teammate Martin Truex, Jr. by 0.011 of a second.
Worrall can pick out moments he would like to have seen more of—an Earnhardt win among them.
“Sure, you want to see crashes,” he said. “But you don’t want to see anybody get hurt. And was I glad Hamlin won? No, I wasn’t glad he won. He was driving a Toyota. But Denny Hamlin’s been in the race a long time.”
Now, more than three months later, Worrall and Kilbane sit in adjacent chairs, rifling through photographs and good-naturedly interrupting each other. They recall wandering around the infield after the race, bemused at the partygoers and gawking at million-dollar motorhomes. Without hesitation, Worrall ranks the Daytona 500 among the top few experiences of his life.
His answer to how he got there is equally unequivocal.
“The big person in that whole deal right there is Irene,” he said, pointing at her and grinning. “Everything started with her. She came to other people with the right questions. Without Irene, none of this happens.
“And people’s generosity in all this? It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “I have a cousin from Iowa I haven’t seen since I was a kid who sent money. People just came into the hospital to donate. And the hospital folks who helped put this together…it’s really something.”